The singular achievements of Steve McQueen’s Hunger have been well sketched by Michael Sicinski already—but one important issue that’s yet to be adequately addressed is its relation to Irish film culture. Two of the big questions that came to my mind after seeing the film were: why has it taken so long for a film like this to emerge, and why did it take a British, Turner Prize-winning fine artist to do so?
The crux of McQueen’s achievement has been the realisation of the complexities of a political struggle in almost purely material and experiential terms, in the tangible subjectivities of body, time and space. This has been labelled by some as a depoliticisation of the subject matter, a reduction of complex historical interactions to their existential phenomena that strips them of their significance. But this notion has it backwards: surely it's the poverty of most political discourse to fail to take into account this materiality, rather than the other way around. In one of the most cogent critiques against the film, Caroline McKenzie faults the film for a “privileging of the emotional over the political”: as if McQueen’s centering on sensuality and bodily experience is somehow less real or valid—or political—than the ideological schemas laid out (and employed with much more calculated sentimentality) in the films of Leftists such as Ken Loach. In fact, it’s just what Irish cinema needs.
Sicinski hits the nail on the head in pointing out:
Films about the “Troubles” in Ireland are virtually a dime a dozen, territory nearly as well-trod as the Holocaust. Is there anything left to say, and if so, is there a manner in which to say it that doesn’t just turn unspeakable suffering into comforting bourgeois narrative at best, or cheap spectacle at worst?
I’ve speculated before that the proliferation of Irish Troubles cinema could be as often motivated by its convenience as a pretext for cinematic excitement (it’s the closest thing we have to a Vietnam) as by a genuine desire to explore our history—but in either case, spectacle or comforting narrative have invariably been the end results. There are notable exceptions: Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s last interesting film, Nothing Personal (1995), operates successfully as both thriller and social critique, giving us a vision of urban sectarianism that’s movingly tragic while unabashedly exploiting the gangsterism of both sides’ paramilitaries for dramatic effect. Interestingly, few more earnestly politicised efforts have failed to escape (or at least, like O’Sullivan, harness) the perceived demands of the commercial market, instead giving into either genre conventions or a moralistic fetishisation of atrocity, grief and victimhood. With Bloody Sunday (2002), Paul Greengrass managed to avoid all these representational pitfalls with a gripping faux-verité style that emphasised the lived experience of an historical moment over its wider context—although somewhat dubiously, Greengrass would find those same stylistic premises to be just as handy for re-jigging the action genre with Matt Damon. Prior to McQueen, the most interesting Northern Irish films were probably the works of two other Englishman: Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989) is the greatest anti-violence film ever made, and Mike Leigh’s neglected Four Days in July (1985) sees his meticulously built characterisation paying grand dividends in an ’80s Belfast trapped in its own conflicting histories.
But Hunger is something new. It offers a way of looking at this situation that suddenly seems to have been so absent, something we’ve been in need of without perhaps realising it. How often do we conceive of political oppression or liberation as playing out in the intimacy of our own body? In limiting his narrative’s scope to largely silent scenes of characters engaged in physical activities, and in filming these events in an austere but intimate way that emphasises subjective experience, McQueen does not reject the political significances of the events depicted so much as plumb the depths of those politics.
The fact is, in dealing with the H Block and the hunger strikes, there is no avoiding the political questions. As this epicentre of the conflict, there is no need for narration, explanatory titles, even words to point out what is already immanent. Allegiances and ideologies are inscribed on each body (in the forms of tattoos or, more often, scars and wounds), divisions are made of metal and concrete, and forms of resistance and subversion are reduced to their most fundamental—centred only around what is allowed to enter and exit one’s body. To say that McQueen depoliticises this situation is to fool oneself that such a feat is even possible.
McKenzie criticises McQueen for “eschewing all political dialogue surrounding the strike”, but she seems to momentarily forget that the centrepiece of the film—and it's most acclaimed scene—consists of twenty minutes of concentrated political dialogue. It’s interesting that this scene has been so universally lauded for its virtuosity and audacity, considering that, in technical terms, it is so exceedingly simple: a conversation across a visiting room table between two people (hunger striker Bobby Sands and a Catholic priest), filmed in an uninterrupted static wide shot. But apart from the daring bravado of its simplicity, perhaps what has drawn critics to this scene so overwhelmingly is the wealth of cultural and political context it provides in an otherwise discrete and taciturn narrative. Some have explicitly criticised the film for not continuing in the articulate vein of this scene, but it’s the dialectic the film creates between it and the rest of the film that makes Hunger so interesting (and distinguishes it from more wholly materialist works like Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”).
The film’s first act, concerning the 4-year “dirty protests” that preceded the hunger strikes, depicts an environment in which words have been exhausted and hollowed out, and dialogue is impossible. Unlike so many films of injustice and oppression (one could take The Counterfeiters , which I’ve written about before, to stand for all), Hunger does not fabricate any political or philosophical debates between the opposing sides of its conflict. Words in this world are only able to function as ritual and as gestures of solidarity or hate. They are means of standing one’s ground rather than shifting it or redefining it, and this is as true as much for the howls and screams as it is for the rehearsed spiel of a new prisoner refusing his prison uniform as an assertion of his political status.
Emerging out of this, the Sands-priest scene takes on particular significance. The scene’s austere single take and the stillness of its characters is carved in stark relief against the sensuality and kinesis of the film’s first part, overwhelmed as it was with shit, piss, skin and violence. After a long absence, words are shown as having the potential to embody more than ritual and gesture. The seemingly incidental chit-chat that takes up the scene’s first few scenes is in fact an essential scene-setter for the political debate to ensue. The jovial banter about the outside world infuse the scene with a sense of connection, community, history that has been completely absence from the film so far, where the spatial and social abstractions of prison are omniprescent. Even the exchange about the bad habit of smoking, and its presence throughout the scene, suggests the notion of bodily self-determination that is central to the prisoners’ cause. These details are important because the interaction that follows, in which Sands and the priest debate his decision to go on hunger strike, is essentially about a struggle for control of body and space, and the sense of identity that both of these connotate.
The two are starkly opposed, the priest questioning both Sands’ motivations and the strategic efficacy of his plan—but the way in which this disagreement is explored is a model of nuance and respect, and, unlike every other conflict of perspective we have seen so far, neither side requires violence (on itself or on the other) in order to stake its ground. But, lest this scene be viewed as positing a model for reconciliation, it is clear that this civilised exchange of views is possible only because the two share common ground, and this question of territory—in psychological, intellectual and social terms, but extending into the purely spatial—is integral, and intwined with the question of bodily integrity, bodily agency. A debate like this cannot happen in the rest of the prison because there is no space in which it could take place. And, of course, utlimately, there is no real possibility of either person convincing the other here, because the space in which each is required to act is not the visiting room.
The Sands-priest scene serves as a fulcrum from which to understand the rest of the film; retrospectively we can see the strategic underpinnings of what we have witnessed so far, and we are now primed to see the starvation of Sands that will occupy the remainder of the film as a strategic choice also. In short, it allows us to see the larger issues that are infusing all this embattled physicality—yet, inversely, it also suggests the extent to which this is a two-way relationship and that just as the “dirty protests” had political motivations which evolve through the hunger strike, the material experience of the former is a psychological and emotional spur to the latter.
Sicinski hints at this dialectic:
… Every fragment represents some larger social whole — the prisoner, the guard. and more than this, the Republicans, the Loyalists, the Catholic Church, the Crown — that is everpresent but can never exactly be seen as a totality. At the end of Act One, when the guard suddenly becomes a stand-in for his social position, sum and total, it is shocking, because McQueen’s radical materialist humanism displays in concrete terms the cold rationality, the madness but also the logic, of a battle in which men must embody forces larger than themselves.
The film is so effective because it stylistically resists these forces of abstraction and dehumanisation even as it inevitably represents them. If there is an ethical distinction between a film and the structures it represents, it is nevertheless a precarious one, and in the depiction of an environment as starkly delineated as a prison—probably humanity’s most inhuman invention—it’s all the easier to allow the environment’s contours to become the film’s. The roles are so defined, the ideologies so hardened and the issues so transcendent, it’s easy to neglect the minutae; to disregard the intimacies of suffering for the greater ideal of sacrifice, to dismiss the adrenaline run of dominating another person’s body for the larger questions of punishment, retribution or “evil”.
McKenzie suggests that McQueen, by telling the story of the hunger strike almost entirely through strong, evocative visuals, but in doing so, he continues to deny these Irish historical figures access to language, favoring extradiegetic archival sound bites of British politicians to the voices of his characters. As a result, his depiction of the strike identifies with Loyalist and British views by strongly affecting viewers’ emotions without allowing for any political dialogue. … McQueen duplicates state censorship by denying the viewer any way to interpret these images except through emotional response.
Actually, many Republicans and even former hunger strikers have praised the film, particularly for its stark depiction of the long-denied extremes of prison guard brutality—but even notwithstanding that, from the perspective of Irish culture, it’s hard to agree that what Troubles cinema needs more of is talking. When Sicinski talks about Hunger as “a radical approach to the problem of representation and its deadening effects”, I’m reminded of how films that address political issues on their own terms tend to have the regressive effect of reducing its players to those terms, even as it attempts to critique their damaging effects or posit their possible re-definition. They can’t see the forest for the trees. But the possibility of resolution only comes out of seeing the potential dissolution of these boundaries, not in taking them as given. Even films like Nothing Personal, while offering stirring images, never really come to grips with the heart of the problem because of these conventional trappings.
One of the greatest powers of McQueen’s approach is that it is implicitly opposed to the repression and deprivation of the individual, but not sectarian in its direction. While Loyalists may inevitably come off worse because of the positions of power they occupy, the film is careful to show that their bodies and minds, too, are terrorised and reduced by this situation—and at the same time leaves hints that the Republican’s risk losing agency to their own leadership and allegiances as much as their enemies do. McKenzie adds that “without the political context, the strikes are just a horrific series of photos of ten men wasting away in prison cots—exactly as Thatcher claimed.” But the hunger strikes will always be both: the deep, complex political context and its layers of history do not somehow negate or replace the brutal and absurd horror of the physical events. The fact is, this uneasy dissonance between the politics and the physical is something exploited by both sides. The cold brutal facts are as dangerous to the Republican cause as to the British one, in the way that reality is always a threat to ideology. Both sides wanted control of the images and their meanings—and because of the way the media translates events into words and clips and soundbites, both sides potentially could—but McQueen concedes it to neither.
Considering this, the final section’s painstakingly intimate and gradual evocation of Sands’ death is crucial; as Sicinski puts it, McQueen “needs the so-called ‘conventional’ final act of Hunger to put the whole question of the strike, and political representation itself, to the test.”
After all, what Sands undergoes is an irreducibly particular death, the extinguishing of a wholly unique and forever irreplaceable light in the world. For Sands’ sacrifice to obtain value as protest, it must function synecdochically. His particular body, and those who starved in his wake, must achieve generality. They must be soldiers, Irishmen, not just singular human beings with grieving Mums and Dads and wives and children. And yet, the necessary power of the sacrifice also requires that that full individual dissolution, with all the will and waste it entails, must somehow be retained.
Although in the film’s central conversation, Sand’s inevitable transformation into an icon and martyr of the cause is addressed, the film carefully avoids the iconography of Sands itself (even going so far as to cast an actor who looks nothing like him)—in particular one boyish, smiling image that has monopolised his memory since his death. Bothered by this, McKenzie wonders “why McQueen even bothers bringing Bobby Sands into the film: if he has denied Sands both his political stance and his persona, what is left of the man?” The answer is simple, and irresolvable: a man.
Hunger is more fruitfully understood as an interrogation and expansion of political discourse rather than a dismissal or abdication of it. It re-orientates rather than rejects the political question. The fact few have even begun to consider the implications of this re-orientation is further evidence that most journalists lack a vocabulary for talking about film form, and instead are forced to describe films like Hunger in precisely the terms it itself avoid (in her review, all of McKenzie’s objections, intelligent and well-written though they are, are essentially journalistic ones, while the film’s style is reduced to generic labels such as “strong” and “evocative”.)
The answers to my two initial questions are probably multiple, but the failure of critics to actually recognise a breakthrough like this when it happens certainly doesn’t help. Perhaps it isn’t Hunger that lacks political awareness, but its critics.